The truth of reality TV

28th October 2005 at 01:00
It is no surprise that Channel 4's Unteachables series had such varied outcomes, writes Graham Fowler

If you watched the recent television series, The Unteachables, you may have felt uneasy because you actually wanted the programme to end in failure.

Whether it is innate or ingrained, teachers tend to look for success in pupils, to look for redeeming features. But in this case teachers had, exceptionally, almost the contrary duty to welcome failure.

This is not because of the children or experts involved, but the intention behind the programme. Suppose for a minute that it had been a success - and we will return to that. What message would have been sent out? And not just to teachers? Something like this: if only all teachers had the skills of these experts, then all children could be helped.

We could have pointed out that we rarely have an environment to teach 16 pupils in a group, or two groups in the second week of the experiment; that we rarely have access to the undiluted attention of experts, specially selected key teachers and a raft of youth workers; and we rarely teach in a situation that allows for a wide range of sport and outdoor activities in an environment supported 24 hours a day. Neither do we have first-rate classroom facilities with additional buildings readily available, such as a delightful meeting hall.

The response would have been that these were the worst of the worst, so they did need better facilities. Teachers normally have only a couple of these children in classes, so such extremes are not needed. This denies the impact that a small number of children can have, not only on a class but also on a school. (And remember that all parents in this case had, like the children, signed up for the experiment; arguably, other parents would have less interest, and be less supportive of everyday teachers.) We might also have stressed that people - and not only children - like attention. Psychological research from the 1920s has shown that work improves if those concerned feel they are being given extra attention.

At a time when children are inclined to have a wish to be famous - but without having any idea why they deserve to be famous - those involved could not but be flattered by the attention. The extra focus was such that some could not deny the notoriety that being bad would bring, although the inevitable consequence of their actions would be to lessen their exposure to "fame". Maybe in these devalued days five minutes is enough.

But the real problem is the intention behind the series. It is perhaps something that the experts ought to have reflected on in more detail.

Writing in June, Julian Bellamy, head of factual entertainment at Channel 4, made no bones about its purpose. "We hope to discover in this programme that no children are truly unteachable," he said. Note that the conclusion to the research is pre-judged.

Perhaps this is why later programmes in the series repeatedly stressed the successes of pupils and the experiment. Yet, consider whether you would find it a success if a weekend break were deemed necessary to let temperatures simmer down, with different rules imposed afterwards - also that more than half of the pupils completed these two weeks in a rather idyllic spot. These were the outcomes, although the pupils might have enjoyed the classes more. There is no need to take my view as the last word on this. To his credit, the main teacher, Phil Beadle, stated in his webchat after the third programme: "I think in the most part it was probably a failure... So for us to claim it was a success would be a big fat fib."

Good for you, Phil. The intention may have been to show that if all teachers were just that bit better, then we would be able to avoid or resolve this problem. Regardless of the message that Channel 4 might wish to portray, this is not the case. The programme provided evidence to the contrary. And in case you are thinking that the long-term effects might be as enchanting as indicated by some of the reporting, the effects have been very mixed - rather more so than the final programme in the series suggested.

Phil's comments discuss five pupils. Two are doing very well, and good luck to them. Three have been excluded, two of them permanently. The reality, then, is that some are in a worse situation than when the series began, but others have improved. The various experiences may have played a part, but the outcomes are little more than we might have anticipated. As children grow older, they mature - and with that, for some, comes improved behaviour.

Graham Fowler is a further education researcher, writer and consultant

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